I quickly learn that just because things feel fine after a conversation like the one Auddy and I have, it doesn’t mean things are normal.
Whatever the hell normal is anymore.
Autumn is back at school on Wednesday, but there’s a shorthand between us that seems to have been elongated. We climb out of my car, and she makes a joke when she points out that my zipper is down; we both turn into awkward robots as I reach for it, zipping it up. I throw my arm around her as we walk down the hall, and she stiffens before leaning into me, and it’s so forced I want to laugh. One look at her face—anxious, hopeful, eager to make everything okay—and I try to pull her into a bear hug, but we are crashed into by a couple of students running down the hall. It’s going to take some time to find our way back into an easy, physical space.
I wonder if it’s because, after the chaos of mutual apologies, the reality has settled in that we had sex. These are the kinds of things we would normally dissect together. If it were anyone else, I could complain to Auddy how it changed everything, but you see the obvious issue there.
I can’t talk to Mom or Dad about it either, because no matter how much they love me, knowing I did something like that would change the way they see me. I know it would. All they know is that Sebastian broke up with me and I’m a basket case.
Mom’s bumper sticker drive is out in full force. In the past three days, I’ve received deliveries in my pillowcase from, ostensibly, Morgan Freeman, Ellen DeGeneres, and Tennessee Williams. For as much as I tease her about it, I can’t deny it helps. I let out a long breath when I walk into the house. I’ll never shy away from her hugs. We don’t always need to speak out loud for them to know what I’m feeling.
The clock ticking down to graduation is both welcome and dreaded—I can’t wait to get out of here, but graduation signals the time when I’ll need to get this book in, and my only strategy right now is to offer Fujita the first twenty pages, tell him that the rest is too personal to share, and hope he understands.
Also contributing to the dreaded column: Auddy and I were stupid and didn’t apply to any of the same schools. So while I’ve been accepted to UCLA, University of Washington, Tufts, and Tulane, Autumn has been accepted at the U of U, Yale, Rice, Northwestern, and the University of Oregon. She’s going to Yale. I’m going to UCLA.
I say it over and over again.
Autumn is going to Yale. I’m going to UCLA.
We almost couldn’t be moving farther apart. It’s a few months away and I’m already dreading the pain of this good-bye. It carves out a hollow pit inside me, like I’m losing more than just a geographical anchor. I’m losing an era. Is that lame? Probably. Everyone seems to be getting deep about finishing high school. And then our parents listen to us and laugh, like we’re still so young and don’t know anything.
Which is probably true. Though, I do know some things.
I know that my feelings for Sebastian don’t seem to dim over the next two weeks. I know that the book I’m writing feels like an enemy, a chore. It has no heart, and no end. I realize now that what I thought was easy—writing a book—really was easy. Reasonably speaking. Anyone can start one. It’s finishing that’s impossible.
Autumn suggests changing the names and the places, but I assure her that didn’t work out so well before. Tanenr can attest to that. She’s quick to offer suggestions: I can rewrite it, she can, or we can work together. She thinks there are a million ways I can make it work without outing Sebastian. I’m not so sure.
Looking back, this book is so basic it’s almost embarrassing: It’s just one guy’s story, the lamest autobiography ever of falling in love. Love fails for a million reasons—distance, infidelity, pride, religion, money, illness. Why is this story any more worthy?
It felt like it was. It felt important. Living in this town is suffocating in so many ways.
But if a tree falls in the woods, maybe it makes no sound.
And if a boy falls for the bishop’s closeted son, maybe it makes no story.
- • •
Sebastian’s been in class only once in the past two weeks. Fujita informs us that he’s taking a break to finish up his own school year and will be back in time to see us turn in our papers.
The last day Sebastian was in class, he sat in the front, ducked low over a table with Sabine and Levi, going over their final chapters. His hair fell over his eyes, and he would flip it out unconsciously. His shirt stretched across his back, and I remembered seeing him shirtless, seeing the treasure map of muscle and bone. Being in the same room with him after the breakup was actually painful. I mean, I wonder about that, how I can be sitting there and no one is touching me and still, I hurt. My chest, my limbs, my throat—everything aches.
The whole time, Autumn sat beside me, her spine curled with guilt, and tried to listen to what Fujita was telling us about copyedits. Every time she looked at Sebastian, she’d glance at me, and I could see the question in her eyes: Did you tell him?
But she knows the answer. I’d have to talk to him to tell him anything. We haven’t texted, or e-mailed, or even passed notes in folders. I won’t lie; it’s killing me slowly.
I saw a movie when I was a kid, something that was probably way too mature for me at that age, but there’s one scene that stuck with me so intensely that sometimes it rushes into my thoughts and actually makes me shiver with dread. In it, a woman is walking across the street with her child, and the child runs ahead and gets hit by a car. I don’t even know the plot that comes after this, but the mother starts screaming, tries to walk backward, to undo what just happened. She’s so frantic, so tortured, that for a minute her mind splits and she thinks there’s a way she can take it all back.
I’m not comparing my breakup to the death of a child—I’m not that melodramatic—but that feeling of helplessness, of being totally unable to change your fate, is so dizzying, sometimes it makes me nauseous out of the blue. There’s nothing I can do to fix this.
There’s nothing I can do to get him back.
I’ve told my parents that we crashed and burned, and as much as they try to cheer me up, and as much as Auddy and I work on finding a way back to the easy comfort we had before, that rain cloud follows me everywhere. I’m not hungry. I sleep a ton. I don’t care about this stupid book.
- • •
Three weeks after we broke up and eight days before my novel is due, Sebastian is sitting on my front steps when I get home.
I’m not proud to admit it, but I immediately start crying. It’s not like I break down and crumple onto the sidewalk, but the back of my throat gets tight, and the sting spreads across the surface of my eyes. Maybe I’m crying because I’m terrified that he’s come here to do more damage, to reactivate what I feel only to let me down easy again, missionary style.
He stands, wiping his palms on his track pants. He must have come right after practice.
“I skipped soccer,” he says by way of greeting. He’s so nervous, his voice is shaking.
Mine shakes too: “Seriously?”
“Yeah.” He smiles, and it’s the kind of smile that starts on one side, unsure, more like a question. Are we smiling? Is this cool?
It hits me like a slap across my cheek that I’m his safe space. I get his real smiles.
He’s never had an Autumn, or a Paul and Jenna Scott, a Manny, or even a Hailey, who hates him but accepts him.
I give up the battle and smile back; Sebastian has become quite the truant. God, it feels so good to see him. I missed him so much it’s like there’s an animal inside me, a beastly puppeteer, trying to direct my arms around his shoulders and my face into his neck.
The question hangs like a cloud over my head. “What are you doing here?”
He lets out a tight cough and looks down the street. His eyes are puffy and red, and I think this time he has been crying. “I’m not doing so great. I didn’t know where else to go.” He laughs now, squeezing his eyes closed. “That sounds so lame.”
He came to me.
“It doesn’t.” Reeling, I move closer to him, close enough to touch if I wanted, to check him everywhere and make sure he’s okay. “What happened?”
Sebastian stares down at our feet. He’s got on indoor cleats, and I love them on him. They’re black Adidas, with orange stripes. I’m wearing some scuffed-up Vans. While he figures out his answer, I imagine our feet moving at a dance, or our shoes side by side at the front door.
My brain is such a traitorous beast. It immediately goes from Ouch, Sebastian is sitting right there to happily married dudes.
“I talked to my parents,” he says, and the world comes to a screeching stop.
“I didn’t come out,” he says quietly, and it’s such a revelation to even hear him say this much that my knees want to buckle. “But I gave a hypothetical.”
Gesturing that we walk around to the backyard for more privacy, I turn, and he follows.
I wish I could describe what happens inside my chest when I feel his hand slide into mine as we move past the trellis of ivy along the garage. There’s a party in my blood, riotous and electric; it vibrates my bones.
“This okay?” he asks.
I look down at our hands, so similar in size. “I don’t know, actually.”
Autumn’s voice pushes into my head: Be careful. I shift her voice to the front, but I don’t let go of his hand.
We find a spot under Mom’s favorite willow tree, and sit. The grass is still wet from the sprinklers, but I don’t think either of us cares. I stretch out my legs, and he follows, pressing the length of his thigh to mine.
“What should we do first?” he asks, staring at our legs. “My apology, or my story?”
His apology? “I don’t know if my brain has caught up yet.”
“Are you okay—have you been okay?”
I let out a single dry laugh. “About us? No. Not at all.”
I count out my heartbeats. One, two, three, four. A bird shrieks overhead, and wind moves through the leaves. This tree always reminded me of Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. Lumbering and unobtrusive and gentle.
“I didn’t end things because I was over you,” he says.
“I know. That made it worse, I think.”
He turns, cupping my neck in both palms so I look him in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
His hands are so warm, and they’re shaking. I bite my lip so I don’t lose it. Sebastian moves closer, ponderously, never closing his eyes even when his mouth touches mine. I don’t even think I kiss him back. I just sort of sit there, mouth hanging open in shock.
“I love you too.” He kisses me again, this time longer. This time I kiss him back.
I pull away because maybe I need to lose it a little, bending and pressing my hands to my face. Of course, this moment is playing out almost exactly like I wanted it to in every iteration of the fantasy. But there’s a lot of scar tissue there, and I’m not sure how or whether I can cleanly remove it with him sitting there watching. I need about a half hour to figure out how to react to what he’s said that’s slightly more measured than pulling him on top of me on the lawn.
“I need a minute to process this,” I say. “Tell me what happened.”
He nods, cheeks hot. “Okay, so, remember that guy Brett my parents mentioned?” he says. “When we overheard them?”
The guy who married his boyfriend, and Sebastian’s mom worried for the well-being of the parents. “Yeah. I remember.”
“He and his husband moved from California to Salt Lake. I guess there’s some drama in the ward about it.” Sebastian turns our hands over, tracing the tendons under my skin with his index finger. “Is this okay?”
“I think so.” I laugh, because the tone of my voice is the acoustic equivalent of a tail wagging, but I can’t even bother being embarrassed about it.
“So, he moved back, and my parents were talking about it at dinner. My grandparents were there.” He laughs, and looks over at me. “I chose a bad time to do this, I know, but it just sort of . . . came out.”
“So to speak.”
He laughs again. “So at dinner, they’re talking about Brett and Joshi, and I just put my silverware down and asked them point-blank what would happen if one of us was gay.”
“Yeah.” He nods, and keeps nodding like he almost can’t believe it. “I haven’t been okay the past few weeks. I don’t know that I can go back to thinking that it will go away. I tried out all these hypotheticals with myself, like what if you moved on from this, would I stop being attracted to guys? Would I be able to marry someone like Manda one day? But the truth is, I wouldn’t. I felt right with you. In part because you’re you, but in part because . . .”
I point to my chest. “Guy.”
Sebastian smiles his real smile. “Yeah.” He pauses, and I know what’s coming before he even says it, and it’s like the sun chose this moment to press through the dense branches of the tree. “I’m totally gay.”
A gleeful laugh rips out of me.
I throw my arms around his neck, tackling him.
Beneath me, he laughs, letting me kiss all over his neck and face.
“I mean this in the least patronizing way possible: It makes me so proud to hear you say that.”
“I’ve been practicing,” he admits. “I said it into my pillow. Then I’d whisper it while I rode my bike. I’ve been saying it every day since we broke up. It doesn’t feel weird anymore.”
“Because it isn’t.” I let him up, and remember that he was in the middle of a story. “Okay, so you asked them the hypothetical . . .”
“Mom got really quiet,” he says, and both of our smiles fade because no, this isn’t silly, wrestling fun anymore. “Dad and Grandpa looked at each other, like ‘Oh, here we go.’ Grandma focused on cutting her steak into tiny, tiny pieces. Lizzy stood up and gathered Faith and Aaron and walked them out of the room.” He looks at me, pained. “Lizzy, my closest friend, wanted to remove them from the conversation. Like, I don’t think anyone was surprised by this.”
This, I think, is what it feels to have a heart broken. I let out some garbled sound of sympathy.
“Finally, Dad said, ‘Do you mean attraction or behavior, Sebastian?’ And he never uses my full name.” He swallows, with effort. “I told him, ‘Either. Both.’ And he went on essentially to say that our family believes that the sacred acts of procreation are to be shared only between a man and his wife, and anything else undermines the foundation of our faith.”
“So, basically what you expected,” I say carefully. I mean, it’s a testament to how messed up the situation is that I’m hearing this and thinking, Could be worse! “Do you think they’re open to the conversation at least?”
“This was a week ago,” he whispers. When he looks up at me with tears in his eyes, he adds, “No one has spoken to me in a week.”
- • •
I can’t even fathom not speaking to my parents for a week. Even when they’ve been on work trips, they call and check in nightly and require detailed updates that go far beyond the scope of their mildly distracted at-home check-ins. But Sebastian has been living in a house with a family that moves around him as if he’s a ghost.
I don’t know when exactly we move on, but it’s not long after he tells me this. It’s like there’s nothing I can say that makes it less terrible. I try, but I fail, and eventually just focus on making him lie back next to me, staring up at the tree, and telling him all the stupid gossip Autumn has told me.
Oof. Autumn. I need to go there at some point.
But not yet. Right now we’re holding hands and lying side by side. Our palms grow slippery and clammy, but he doesn’t let go, and I won’t either.
“What have you been doing?”
“Moping,” I tell him. “School. Mostly moping.”
“Same.” He reaches up with his free hand, scratches his jaw. It’s stubbly for once, and I’m into it. “Well, and church. I’ve been practically living there.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” He rolls his head to look at me. “I leave on tour three weeks from today. Honestly, I don’t think my parents are going to be able to keep this up when the book comes out. I know they’re proud. They’ll want to share that pride with everyone.”
I’d forgotten about the book. It’s like the tour just sort of bled into his mission and stopped having any legitimate purpose. I am a brat. “And they won’t want anyone to see them being assholes.”
He doesn’t say anything to this, but that means he doesn’t disagree, either.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t want to bad-mouth your parents because I know you guys are super close. I’m just pissed.”
“Me too.” He shifts, putting his head on my shoulder. The next eight words come out thin, like he’s run them through his thoughts so many times, they’re worn down, frayed: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this worthless.”
This is a knife to my gut, and in a heated flash, I want him to get the fuck out of Provo. I hope his book sells a million copies in a week and everyone loses their mind over how great he is. I hope his ego gets enormous and he becomes unbearable—anything but that shaking tenor of his voice saying those words again.
I pull him to me, and he rolls to his side, letting out a choking sob into my neck.
So many platitudes pile onto the tip of my tongue, but they’d all sound terrible.
Don’t let anyone make you feel worthless.
I’ve never known anyone like you.
And on and on.
But we’ve both been raised to care greatly what our family thinks about us—their esteem is everything. On top of that, Sebastian has the looming judgment of the church, telling him wherever he looks that the God he loves thinks he’s a pretty foul human being. It’s impossible to know how to undo the damage they’re doing to him.
“You’re amazing,” I say anyway, and he chokes out a sob-laugh. “Come on, kiss me. Let me kiss that amazing face.”
- • •
Mom finds us like this—crying-laughing-crying in a heap under the Snuffleupagus tree—and one look at our faces sends her into triage mode.
She claps a hand over her mouth when she sees Sebastian, and tears rise to the surface of her eyes nearly immediately. Mom pulls us up, hugs me, and then wordlessly takes Sebastian into her arms—he gets the longer hug, the one with the soft Mom words spoken into his ear—and something breaks loose in me because it makes him cry harder. Maybe she’s just saying things like “You’re amazing. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel worthless.” Maybe she tells him she understands what he’s going through and that it will get better. Maybe she’s promising him weekly deliveries of bumper stickers. Whatever it is, it’s exactly what he needs because the tears eventually stop, and he nods down at her.
The sun is starting to set, and there’s no question he’s staying for dinner. We wipe the grass from our pants and follow Mom inside. It’s late spring, and even though it gets pretty warm during the day, the temperature drops like a rock once the sun goes away, and it’s only now that I realize how cold it was out under the tree. Inside, my parents have a fire going in the living room. They’re blasting Paul Simon from the stereo. Hailey is sitting at the kitchen table, carving out her chemistry homework with dark, resentful scrapes of her pencil.
It’s suddenly impossible to get warm. We laugh, clutching each other in this sort of surreal, high way—he’s here, in my house, with my family—and I pull Sebastian down the hall with me, handing him one of my hoodies from the coat hooks near the front door. It’s deep red, with the S-T-A-N-F-O-R-D stamped across the front in white letters.
He patiently lets me zip it for him, and I admire my handiwork. “You look good in those colors.”
“Unfortunately, I’m already enrolled at a local university.”
For now, I think. God, his decision to embrace this—us—impacts so many things. If he wants to stay at BYU, he can’t be out, period. Even being here he’s essentially breaking an honor code. But there are other schools. . . .
This is unreal. I look down the hall at where my parents are bent over, laughing over my dad’s hysterical distaste for touching raw chicken. They both seem to have put their worry away for the night, realizing that we need this—a few hours where we can just be together like any other couple. The only instruction they give us is to wash our hands before dinner.
“Speaking of college, though.”
I startle when he says this because it hits me: It’s been only a few weeks that we’ve been apart, but so much has happened, future-decision-wise. He doesn’t know where I’m moving in August.
“I assume you’ve heard back from most places?”
“Yeah.” I reach forward, zipping down his sweatshirt just enough to get an eyeful of throat and collarbone. His skin is this perfect kind of smooth and tan. I want to get him shirtless and have my own photo shoot.
I meet his eyes. “I’m going to UCLA.”
Sebastian falls wordless for a few tense seconds, and the pulse in his neck picks up pace. “You’re not staying in state?”
Wincing, I admit, “No.” I hope the grin I give him takes the edge off my words: “But neither are you, most likely.”
He deflates a little. “Who even knows.” His hand comes up to my chest, sliding flat-palmed from my shoulder to my stomach. Everything tenses. “When do you move?”
“August, I think.”
“How’s your book coming?”
My stomach spasms, and I gently guide his hand away from my navel. “It’s fine. Come on. Let’s get something to drink.”
He sends a text to his parents, telling them he’ll be home late. It goes unanswered.
I think I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life, and I don’t say that to be flippant or hyperbolic. I mean, my parents are charged up on something—together, they are being hilarious. Hailey is actually crying she’s laughing so hard. Sebastian nearly loses a sip of water when my dad tells his favorite terrible joke about a duck walking into a bar and ordering raisins. When we finish eating, I take Sebastian’s hand on the table and my parents stare at us for a few beats with a mixture of adoration and concern. Then they offer us dessert.
It’s what I want for us. And whenever I look over at him and he meets my eyes, I try to say, See? It could be like this. It could be like this every day.
But then I see his own words pushed back to me, high and tight in his thoughts: It could. But I’d lose everything I know and everyone I have.
I can’t honestly blame him if it’s not enough yet.
- • •
Mom and Dad head up to bed only about twenty minutes into Spectre. They lift a snoring Hailey off the chair and help her up the stairs too. Dad looks back over his shoulder at me, giving me a single half encouraging, half reminding-me-not-to-have-sex-on-the-couch look, and then disappears.
Then we’re alone, in the living room, with the strange blue glow of the television and a giant mostly untouched bowl of popcorn in front of us. At first we don’t move. We’re already holding hands under a throw blanket. I keep having these flashes of realization—I wonder if it happens to him, too—where I can’t actually believe he’s here, we’re back together, my parents are just hanging out with me and my boyfriend like it’s something we can do, no problem.
But that voice that’s been in my thoughts all day clears its throat, and I know I can’t put it off anymore.
“I need to tell you something,” I say.
He looks over at me. The left side of his face is glowy from the television, and combined with his sharp jaw, cheekbones, and mildly concerned expression, he looks a little like the Terminator. “Okay.”
“I messed up.” I take a deep breath. “After you broke up with me, I was a mess. I don’t actually remember a lot of the day. I know I drove around for a few hours, and then I went to Autumn’s. I was crying, and not thinking very clearly.”
I can tell he knows the minute I say this because he does this sharp inhale through his nose, like he’s saying, “Oh.”
Nodding, I let out a slow, remorseful, “Yeah.”
He nods, turning back to the TV.
“She’s okay. I’m okay. We talked about it, and obviously it’s weird, but she and I will get through it. I just . . . didn’t want to keep it from you.”
“Just to make sure I understand: You had sex with her?”
I pause, guilt and shame pressing down on my shoulders like a weight. “Yeah.”
His jaw tics. “But you don’t want to be with her?”
“Sebastian, if I wanted to be with Auddy, I’d be with Auddy. She’s my best friend, and I went to her because I was heartbroken. I realize this sounds completely insane, but we got into a weird comfort spiral that turned into sex.”
I think this makes him laugh in spite of himself. But he looks back at me. “This doesn’t feel great.”
He reaches up, absently rubbing his sternum with his fist. I lift his hand to kiss his knuckles.
“I know I messed up,” he says quietly. “I guess I can’t have the kind of reaction that I want to have.”
“You can. I get it. I would be losing my mind right now if the situation were reversed.”
“But you wouldn’t be able to tell me what to do after you break up with me.” Apparently, his calm demeanor wins out. I’m not sure whether I’m relieved, or wish he would show a small flash of jealous rage.
“I guess not.”
“But if we’re together, you’re with me, right?” he asks. “Even if I go away?”
Pulling back, I study him for a second. “I thought you couldn’t be in a relationship when you leave.”
He ducks his head. “I’m going to have to figure out what rules I follow and what rules I don’t.”
“While keeping everything about you a secret?”
Sebastian turns to me, pressing his face into my neck, and lets out a cute growl. “I don’t know yet.” His words come out muffled: “I love so many things about the church. Speaking to God feels like instinct, like it’s wired into me. I can’t imagine what I’d do if I left. It’s like standing in an open field and trying to point to the four walls. There’s just no framework to my life without the church.”
I wonder if he has to leave, if his choice is binary like that. “Maybe things are more relaxed in wards in other cities,” I say. “Like LA, for example.”
He laughs, and bares his teeth against my collarbone.
Things go wordless for a while.
I keep one ear open for the sound of footsteps on the stairs and the other open for the sounds Sebastian makes next to me.